Breathless Views of the High Sierras

Backpacking Part of the John Muir Trail in Yosemite National Park, CA - Sept 2010

Taking a Break at Shadow Lake
Todd, Steph, Kim and I set out from Agnew Meadows near Mammoth Lake on our six-day backpacking trip through the Ansel Adams Wilderness and into Yosemite National Park. Our first rest stop was at Shadow Lake and although it was only a few miles up the trail, we were ready for a break. Our entire trip was at an elevation of over 9,000 feet and so for the first couple days us Phoenix low-landers were sucking wind and cursing switchbacks.

Lake Ediza Afternoon
For most of the trip, we followed a section of the famous John Muir Trail that runs over 200 miles from Yosemite to Mount Whitney. But our first night, we detoured off to the west and camped near the shore of Ediza Lake. Aside from one other small group on the far side, we had the lake to ourselves.

First Day, Last Light
When the sun dips below the rim of the mountains, it gets dark - and cold - fast. The grays and greens of the rock and trees fade to deep shades of blue and black.

Cold Moon Rising
It dropped below freezing several nights during our trip and we would awake to frost on the tents. But overall it was not as cold as I was expecting given the altitude and time of year. Weather was perfect and mostly clear the whole time with day-time highs in the 70s.

Garnet Lake Rocks! ...And Trees!
After a never-ending climb over a higher-than-expected ridge, we finally dropped down to Garnet Lake where we spent two nights in order to have a full day to relax and wander. The lake has a variety of small islands, peninsulas and odd little rock walkways connecting them - making for great exploring and interesting views.

Still Morning
In the morning, the absolute lack of wind (maybe due to an absolute lack of oxygen) left the lake surface as flat as a mirror while the sun slowly warmed the mountains first.

Calm Cove
The combination of golden morning light, calm water and the interesting shoreline made Garnet Lake one of the prettiest morning scenes that I have ever witnessed. And I am not usually one to praise mornings - especially ones hovering just above freezing.

Another Day, Another Lake
Over the ridge and through the woods (and past Grandmother's house) we went to Thousand Island Lake - so named for the many little islets that dot the surface (although I kept thinking of the salad dressing). At these altitudes, relatively little algae forms and so all the lakes were crystal clear and bitter cold.

One in a Thousand Island Shot
By this time, we were far in the backcountry and all the guys we saw (ourselves included) had varying degrees of beards started. Todd was packing his serious camera and tripod and took advantage of our lunch break to capture the view of the lake from a nearby ridge.

Dead Tree, Tired Hiker
From 1000 Island Lake, we continued over 10,000 foot Island Pass and spent the night in a pleasant wooded basin beside babbling Rush Creek. The huge and often gnarled trees of the high Sierras are impressive even when only dead trunks. One odd (and somewhat annoying) feature of many varieties is that their branches tend to slope downward making it difficult to find places to hang things around camp.

Looking Back from Donahue Pass
The next day, we began the final assult on Donahue Pass which at 11,000 feet was the high point of our trip. As we climbed, trees gave way to shrubs and shrubs gave way to grass until finally there was nothing at the pass but an endless sea of gray rock. We could see for dozens of miles in either direction from the pass.

Its All Downhill From Here
View of Mount Lyell and Donahue Basin from Donahue Pass. The rocks of the Sierra Nevadas got their start 200 million years ago when a series of huge magma bodies rose and cooled beneath the Earth's surface and were much later exposed by erosion and uplifting. The uniformity of the composition - mostly variations of granite - make some of the ridges and mountains feel like they are just one single huge stone - which to a degree they are. You can see the talus and boulders breaking off the main body of the mountain, the rocks and stones breaking off the boulders and so on down to the grains of sand at your feet. And all of it the same battleship-gray granite - the crumbling bones of the earth.

Basin Break
Just below Donahue Pass on the Yosemite side, is a pretty little glacier-carved and pond-filled nook known as Donahue Basin. Water from the snow banks above follows a glacier-carved path through the basin and down the mountain side to the Tuolumne River far below. Although we had clear weather most of the time, a diffuse high-altitude haze would often appear in the afternoons.

The Final Stretch
From Donahue Pass, it was a 2,000 foot drop down to the Lyell Fork of Tuolumne Meadows for our last night on the trail. Tuolumne Meadows is the largest alpine meadow in the United States - we had a nine mile hike through it the next day just to reach civilization and cheeseburgers at the Tioga Pass Road. Although the meadow did not have the stunning scenery of the mountain trails, its smooth and level floor was a nice change of pace from ridge climbing and we made excellent time.

Critters Met Along the Trail
Yosemite is infamous for its trouble-prone bears and so Todd and Steph brought an electric bear fence (yes, they do make such a thing) to guard the camp at night. It worked so well that we did not even see so much as a bear print or scat the entire trip. In fact, aside from jays, chickaree squirrels and swarms of chipmunks, we saw relatively few animals in general. However, I was surprised to see a garter snake at 9,500 foot Ediza Lake (apparently so was the fish it caught). We also encountered a single grouse near the summit of Donahue Pass, a few marmots in the rocks further below and a couple of young mule deer butting heads in the distance at Tuolumne Meadows.

Out of One Tent and Into Another
After six days in the backcountry, we wanted one full day to see the main Yosemite Valley and check out some of the tourist attractions and so we checked into the famous (infamous?) Curry Camp where tent cabins have been all the rage since the 1890s. In many ways, it felt like being back on the trail again except that my sleeping bag was considerably more comfortable than the tent cot. The metal box in front of each cabin is a bear box for food storage (No Food in the Cabins!).

Vernal Falls
During our day of exploring the valley, we did the classic day hike up the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls - one of a half-dozen major waterfalls in Yosemite Valley. The view is as impressive as the steep hike up the cliff beside it.

Pool and Pinnacle
Above Vernal Falls is a large placid green pond known as the Emerald Pool. The slope of polished granite that makes up its far bank is known as the 'Silver Apron' (and better known to photographers as 'the very bright surface that messes up your exposures').

Half Dome, Half Light
Half Dome is one of the most famous rock outcrops in the world and the classic iconic image of Yosemite National Park which it towers over like a skyscraper. Intrepid hikers (not us this trip) can take a 17-mile round-trip trail to the top. We just enjoyed the sunset views from near Curry Camp.

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